In his victory speech after one of the most polarized elections in American history, President-elect Donald Trump made a special plea to those who did not support him: “I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.” His request seemed like a genuine confession of trust and respect toward political opponents. More than that, Mr. Trump may be asking for what is so rarely heard in Washington: What goals do we share so that we can bring the most good to all?
Elections are designed to be decision points on issues – build a wall with Mexico, for example, or provide free college tuition. Yet postelection governance is not always “my way or no way.” And it is not simply a string of compromises by each side for “pragmatic” results. Rather, as any state or local leader will tell you, first comes listening to alternative ideas as well as sharing a common perception of the rapid changes in society.
Hillary Clinton, in a speech to the nation’s mayors last year, made a similar point. To restitch the fraying fabric of each community, she said, all Americans must step up to listen to each other. Fundamentally, she added, “this is about the habits of our hearts, how we treat each other, how we learn to see the humanity in those around us....”
If Trump wants to learn more about this way of governing, he should spend time with mayors, governors, and state legislators. While local officials are often as divided as national politicians, they tend to be less partisan because of the more direct effect of their work. There’s no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage, said former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. You pick it up, or you don’t pick it up.
Many new presidents in the recent past have met with bipartisan groups of governors and mayors. “Nobody understands what’s happening in the country, and the struggles, hopes, hardships, and the dreams of the American people as well as the nation’s governors,” President Obama said at his first meeting with governors. State legislators, too, are trying to fight the national trend toward polarization. In recent years, hundreds of them have participated in a workshop called “Building Trust through Civil Discourse,” offered by an institute at the University of Arizona.
To get reelected, a politician may stick hard to certain issues to maintain key supporters. Yet state and local leaders often find it easier to search for common goals, such as solutions for law enforcement, highway funding, or the homeless. When governors and mayors meet for their national conventions, party labels sometimes fall away in discussing such topics. On national issues, they often speak out as one.
To seek guidance from political opponents, as Trump spoke of, would be a welcome change in Washington. Yet such sharing of advice already occurs in most state capitals. All it takes is more trust, respect, and listening.